Rep. Harris speaks on guns, funds, education

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan
Rep. Andy Harris (R-1) spoke Monday evening at a town hall meeting, answering questions from constituents.

CAMBRIDGE — U.S. Representative Andy Harris (R-1) spoke Monday night at a town hall meeting held at American Legion Post 91. Constituents asked questions on issues including guns, government spending and school discipline.

The first question from the audience was what will the congressman do to reduce the federal budget deficit, now pegged at $970 billion. Rep. Harris said he had voted against a recent appropriations bill, but more needs to be done, especially with big-ticket items such as health care.

Medicare, for which taxpayers spend $600 million annually, will be in trouble in 15 years, he said, if costs are not controlled.

Overall, though revenues increased 2-3 percent, “Our spending went up 7 percent,” he said.

Tom Hutchinson asked, “What’s your take on Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s holding back” on sending articles of impeachment to the Senate.

“I’m confused, because we were told that this is so urgent, that this president is such a danger to the country,” Rep. Harris said.

He said if the impeachment had gone to the Senate, rules state that the Senate would have to begin its work on the issue the next day, and could not adjourn until they had dispensed with it. “I guess the deal in Washington is that nobody wanted to get put on the spot over the holidays, or something,” he said. “This was a huge waste of time.”

Gun laws
A few of those attending asked about gun laws, including the state’s so-called, “Red Flag Law,” in which a person can ask a judge to have police confiscate the firearms of someone who is believed to be mentally unstable and a danger to himself or others. Rep. Harris said he does not support the law, which involves a hearing at which the person being discussed does not have to be present.

“It’s an ex parte hearing taking away a constitutional right,” Rep. Harris said.

He said in Maryland, there have been about 1,000 requests for a person’s firearms to be removed, with about half being granted by judges. “That means half have not been granted. I think we ought to ask what happened in the cases where they were not granted,” he said, adding that he would like to know how many of those persons were referred for mental health treatment, and that the information involved should be public.

“Federal law already says, if you are adjudicated to be mentally defective, you can’t own or possess a firearm,” he said. “We already have laws in place.”

Bill Hughes said he had been issued a permit in Virginia to carry a concealed weapon. “I’ve heard noises, when Donald Trump was first elected, about national reciprocity,” he said to Rep. Harris. “Do you think that will ever happen?”

“We actually passed that out of the House when we were in the majority,” Rep. Harris said. “But it never went to the Senate because it was going to be stopped by filibuster.”

He said the Supreme Court is considering hearing a case regarding reciprocity. But in the meantime, he said, “I wouldn’t put it above the Maryland Legislature this year to consider a bill that would, in fact, confiscate firearms. It’s gotten to that point. The Supreme Court will probably have to weigh in on that.”

In terms of laws already on the books, he said they are generally not prosecuted, or violations punished with stiff sentences. In Baltimore, “We had a meeting with the federal prosecutors,” Rep. Harris said. “I asked the federal prosecutors if they could do something about it, because the city attorneys just don’t do it, they don’t have the manpower, it’s not a priority for them for some reason. I can’t understand it.”

He said the federal prosecutors said they would step in to prosecute. “You have to enforce the laws,” he said.

Control of House
Randy Mills asked, “What do you think the chances are of the Republicans winning back the House in 2020?”
“November is a long, long way off,” Rep. Harris said, “But I’ll just put a political observer hat on. I think people are going to be very disappointed with the leadership in the House not working with the leadership in the Senate and the president to solve the problems of Americans. When that happens, Americans go to the polls, and they make conscious decisions to change leadership.”

“I would suspect that most people are frustrated. We may have questions about prescription drug prices, health care costs, security on our border, solving simple immigration issues, like H2B visa issues, that just can’t be done because the leadership in the House, the leadership in the Senate and the president…you can’t get them in the room anymore.”

Bipartisan progress
A woman who identified herself as Doris asked, “What is it going to take for you guys to get rid of this partisan pettiness and just work together?”

“I don’t want to have ill feelings towards my neighbors because they may have voted a different way,” she said. “But it’s come to that point.”

“The first thing you have to do is, you have to have independent redistricting,” Rep. Harris said. “When you draw the district lines, they can’t be drawn in a back room by one of the parties. They have to be drawn by an independent commission…My district, by the way, goes from Pocomoke to the Frederick County line. Do you think that was an accident?”

He said parties have created districts to support their candidates, rather than relying on naturally occurring regions. “You don’t draw a district that the Eastern Shore district, you draw it to be a Republican district, because you put enough Republicans from outside the Eastern Shore in, so that it will always elect a Republican. That’s been true now for 30 years for the Eastern Shore.”

Rep. Harris is the only Republican from Maryland in the House of Representatives, the others being all Democrats. “That’s the politicians picking their voters, not the voters picking their politicians,” he said.

So it becomes a question of who wins the dominant party’s primary election. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll admit it, if I win the primary, I’ll most likely win the election,” he said.

“Do you think a district like that will elect a moderate,” he said. “No, it won’t. It will elect a conservative. And the Democratic districts won’t elect a moderate, they’ll elect liberals. So you end up with a Congress that doesn’t look like America, it looks like primaries.”

He said his own district will “elect a Republican every day of the week, but I don’t think it’s fair.” Competitive districts, which Rep. Harris said he supports, force officials toward the middle and greater cooperation.
He said the second factor in improving the political environment is, “We should stop responding to what I call the partisan attack ads.”

“That’s the problem, we attack ideas. And when you attack ideas, sometimes it gets personal,” he said. As an example, he used the H2B visa issue, regarding temporary workers who come to the Shore to work on farms or in the seafood industry, have payroll taxes deducted from their checks, and then return home in six months. “They’re paying our Social Security and Medicare, and then they go home,” Rep. Harris said.
But the issue is not being solved, because, he said, Democrats want to tie the question to a comprehensive immigration reform bill. If someone on the other side tries to address the issue, he said, he could be accused of supporting amnesty. “It’s frustrating to me,” Rep. Harris said.

School discipline
When asked by a constituent about schools and discipline issues, he said, “You have to have a school board in place that says, ‘You know what, we’re going to implement discipline in our schools.’”

He continued, “These school board members should be elected saying, ‘How do we make our students top-performing students?’ That’s it. It’s not whether we’re going to get sued, it’s not hurting someone’s feelings. I’m sorry, you know, if you are coming into the school and you are disrupting the classroom, you are not going to be in the school…I find in general that boards are not willing to do that. They just want to be safe.”

Rep. Harris said in the past, spending on schools increased, and performance went down — American students rank at the bottom of industrialized nations. “As taxpayers, we should be furious,” he said.

Louise White said she knows many people who are dependent on Social Security and Medicare, who are unable to make ends meet. “Give these people a raise, a good raise,” as much as 10 percent, she said.

Rep. Harris said when Social Security was created, it was meant to be a supplement to retirement, not necessarily to pay for all a person’s needs. “But that expectation developed,” he said. “There are other programs that fill in. For instance, you’re eligible for food stamps,” housing assistance and Medicaid.